Overview: Not stellar but certainly decent, a fairly fun zombie survival game with a relatively unique twist despite some outstanding flaws.
Techland has a history of letting their imagination get ahead of their ability to successfully execute their ambitions, the cover art and press releases promising something amazing while the actual product, while good, doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Chrome was a sci-fi shooter that promised an epic Deus Ex-like experience as a cyborg bounty hunter on an alien planet, what was released was alright but not quite as epic as we were lead to expect.
During its development, Dead Island made similar promises and when it was finally released in 2011, despite being originally announced within a year of the original Left 4 Dead, it likewise delivered upon them… sort of. A melee-focused Left 4 Dead meets Borderlands is what we were pledged and that is what we received… kind of. Serviceable but not the best is a good way to describe the game. While definitely fun, this game depends more on its relatively unique combination of ingredients then how it utilizes any of them.
Dead Island takes place on the fictional South Pacific island of Banoi, a popular tourist destination for everyone from suburbanites to the mega-rich. All is more or less well, at least until a mysterious zombie outbreak suddenly occurs on the island and it’s up to four random characters with a mysterious immunity to survive and find a way off of the island. Basically it’s a B-grade movie in a video game format, complete with hammy accents and outlandish character backgrounds. Have you ever played a game that has a hardboiled Australian ex-cop, a Chinese secret agent, a retired Texan football player, and a washed-up rap star from New Orleans as playable characters? Well after Dead Island, you can say you did.
Speaking of the characters, the RPG mechanics are easy to grasp for any one who played Borderlands but at the same time, the characters don’t play all that differently from one another. Sam B uses blunt weapons, Xian uses sharp weapons, Logan uses sharp weapons as projectiles, and Purma uses guns. Each character gets three skill trees, Fury, Combat, and Survival. The first and third trees are more or less the same between all playable characters, providing bonuses to character-specific berserk modes and a laundry list of helpful little perks towards item durability, healing, and the frequency of rare or unique drops respectively. Combat is primarily focused on increasing damage and improved the character’s general effectiveness with their particular specialty. Sounds good on paper but considering players will be invariably using a combination of melee, throwing weapons, and firearms regardless of who they play, the character system ultimately feels kind of weak compared to other games released before and after Dead Island. Indeed, considering the rarity of firearms and the emphasis on traps, improvised weapons, and melee combat, the absence of a MacGuyver-type mechanic or a bow-using survivalist is extremely odd.
The story is another area where Dead Island is relatively weak. Out of a twenty-hour play-through (this includes completing roughly eighty to ninety percent of the side quests,) the story progresses at a snail’s pace until roughly the fifteen-hour mark where it then takes off like a rocket.
Finally, there are the bugs and the game’s general difficulty. While it is possible to beat Dead Island entirely in single-player (it was done in the process of reviewing this game,) make no mistake this is designed to be a co-op game and there will be several particular instances in the final fourth of the game that make a co-op partner appreciated though not essential. On that count, while cooperative play has been inexplicably made a default option, the game has a number of very friendly matchmaking capabilities allowing for easy drop in and drop out gameplay. On the subject of glitches in the game, there is nothing even remotely game breaking but minor clipping errors and occasional item duplication bugs were encountered during the review play through.
That being said the location is beautiful, almost tragically so, for a game launched two years before Skyrim or Far Cry 3. The melee combat is satisfying, the improvised weapons range from the plausible (poisoned blades and hammers with strategically attached weights) to the hilariously entertaining (virtually all the fire weapons involve improvised blowtorches or electrically superheated blades,) and the four “special infected” were clearly designed to take advantage of the relative scarcity of firearms to make the player sweat.
In conclusion, Dead Island is good but not great. If you’re looking for an epic “shoot and loot” in the same vein as Borderlands or a deep RPG like the Elder Scroll games, you are better served looking elsewhere. But if you are looking for something different that does reasonably well at making zombies scary again, Banoi might be worth the trip. Which is a pity, Techland seems to have a fun mad scientist approach to game design that one doesn’t really see in Western developers anymore. But unfortunately their ability to realize their imaginations is not quite there yet… a passable three out of five stars.